Zoe Rahman - an Asian angle on jazz


Zoe Rahman takes a practical view of her Nationwide Mercury Music Prize nomination. With the benefit of hindsight, this year’s token jazz presence on the short list can regard her £200 entry fee – and the twenty-five copies of her Melting Pot CD that she had to submit – as an investment.


"I didn’t enter thinking I would win," says the classically trained pianist from Chichester. "In fact, I wasn’t going to enter at all but I decided to go for it at the last minute, and it’s paid off because people notice these things. Promoters become more willing to take a chance on booking you and – touch wood – people want to come out and see you. So, yeah, it’s been good for me."


Rahman was a late starter in jazz, certainly when compared to the young talents currently coming through various jazz academies and youth bands. The daughter of a father from Bengal and a mother from Yorkshire, she grew up in Sussex with, she says, a very English cultural mindset defined by classical music and 1980s pop.


Piano lessons from the age of four led to her attending the Royal Academy in London’s junior section every Saturday for seven years and taking a degree in music at Oxford.


She might well have followed her older sister into a career as a classical pianist but for her discovery, through her saxophone and clarinet-playing younger brother, of jazz.


"There was no particular musician who made me think, wow, that’s what I want to do," she says. "But I remember my brother bringing home these records by Weather Report and Miles Davis from school and wondering how these guys created all this music – it seemed to me – from nowhere. The first piano solo I tried to play was Horace Silver’s on Song for My Father and for someone who was used to playing what was set down in front of her, this was really liberating."


It was at this point that she realised she was not the sort of person to abide by rules, at least in a musical context. Nowadays, she says, she would find being confronted with a classical score much more daunting than getting together with a group of experienced jazzers and playing from her imagination – as she did with American drummer Bob Moses and bassist Joshua Davis while still a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston.


"I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what it is to be an improviser, both among classical musicians and the general public," she says. "People often seem to be scared by it - I know I was when I started doing it. But it’s really just a question of developing ideas on the spot. The best solos are like compositions; they’re just as logical. I know because I still listen to a lot of other people’s solos and work out what’s going on, and the spontaneity of them can be really exciting for both the player and the listener."


At Berklee, as well as working with Moses (she laughs at the thought of her younger self telling this hugely experienced musician what she wanted him to play), she studied with JoAnne Brackeen, who numbers Art Blakey, Stan Getz and Joe Henderson among her former employers.


"JoAnne was a fantastic teacher and she’s a hugely inspiring person, just in her general approach to being a musician," says Rahman. "She taught me lots but the most important thing she taught me was how much I still have to learn. You never stop learning as a musician. Every day you’re trying to get better and no matter how well a gig goes, you want the next one to be better still."


In a jazz scene which is heavily populated – possibly more so than at any time previously – with piano, bass and drums trios, the trick is to find your own style as a group. Rahman draws inspiration from two examples in particular – Bill Evans, whose music was the subject of her dissertation at Oxford, and Duke Ellington, whose all-star trio recording Money Jungle taught her the importance of letting her partners’ personalities be as much a part of the group as her own.


"It’s not just about me – and that’s what I like about it. I just name the tunes," she says. "I have been bringing more and more of my Bengali background into our music recently, though. There’s some on Melting Pot but it’s something I’d like to pursue further. Because Bengali folk music is very much song based and even though I don’t sing and I can’t speak the language – this is going really well so far, huh? – my dad’s been translating some things for me and I think I can project the meaning and emotions into my playing."


From The Herald, October 26, 2006


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